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Howard school board District 2 candidate Antonia Barkley Watts discusses equity, ‘opportunity gap’

Antonia Barkley Watts is running for the District 2 seat on the Howard County Board of Education.
Antonia Barkley Watts is running for the District 2 seat on the Howard County Board of Education.

The Nov. 3 general election is less than a month away and, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, some voters in Howard County have already received their mail-in ballots.

This week, the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier is publishing the answers to a questionnaire sent to every Board of Education candidate in the five district races. Today’s answers are from Antonia Barkley Watts — one of the candidates running in District 2.

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Watts, 39, handily won the District 2 primary with 56% of the vote, while Larry Pretlow II, 30, narrowly edged out James Cecil to advance to the general election.

In late September, Pretlow announced the suspension of his campaign in a social media post, although the deadline to remove his name from the ballot had passed. However, about a week later, Pretlow resumed his campaign with an announcement on his website.

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“My supporters have spoken, and we are fighting for District 2 together, so let’s lift every voice for working families and make our funds achieve more," Pretlow wrote Oct. 3.

The resumption of Pretlow’s campaign was too late to include him in the questionnaire. To view his answers to a different questionnaire from the June primary, click here.

The winner in District 2, along with the winners of the other four districts, will make up the first Board of Education in Howard County to be voted in by residents in a district instead of the entire county.

The other races for the Howard County Board of Education are: incumbent Christina Delmont-Small and Matthew Molyett in District 1; Jolene Mosley and Tom Heffner in District 3; incumbent Jen Mallo and Sezin Palmer in District 4; and Yun Lu and Cindy Vaillancourt in District 5. Current Vice Chairperson Vicky Cutroneo and member Chao Wu will remain on the board through 2022, serving as the first two at-large members in the new system.

For more information on how to vote, click here.

See questionnaire answers from the other districts here: District 1 | District 3 | District 4 | District 5

Below are the answers from Watts. They may be edited for clarity and style.


Why are you running to be on the Howard County Board of Education?

Antonia Barkley Watts: I am running for the Board of Education in District 2 because I believe in the transformative power of education. It is critical that we develop a system where every child has access to an education that fits their needs. Students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds have fewer educational opportunities compared to their peers. Without these opportunities, the achievement gap will continue to grow. We need to close these gaps to achieve better outcomes for our children, especially for the traditionally underserved like my two sons. Sadly, this gap starts even before kindergarten. Children without access to early education may enter school up to two academic years behind their peers and may never catch up. I will work to expand the number of high quality and affordable pre-K programs in our schools. Teacher diversity can greatly improve all students’ outcomes through relationship building and cultural connections. We must actively recruit from teacher education programs with large populations of teachers of color. Then, to retain these teachers, we must also make the workplace welcoming through equity, inclusivity and implicit bias training. Finally, we must make teaching in Howard County attractive. I will make this a priority. To accomplish these goals, it is important to develop a budget that supports the educational and professional needs of our school. As a certified Maryland educator, parent and former engineer, I am passionate about the state of our schools and uniquely positioned to combine my firsthand classroom experience with my ability to derive solutions from data.

The board voted over the summer to have school in Howard County be 100% virtual through January. Did you agree with that decision? Should the school system start a hybrid model sooner than February?

Watts: I agree with the decision to start the school year fully virtual. The decision provided the school system with the much-needed time to develop a robust and equitable plan for the safe return of students and staff to the buildings. It also allowed our secondary educators to develop content for an entire course. For our families, it provided some stability in a time where things are constantly changing. Still, the virtual model has been a difficult undertaking for some of our most vulnerable students. For these students, it is important to provide access to small group in-person learning sooner than February.

The redistricting process in 2019 was a controversial issue in the community. Early construction on a 13th high school is underway, and it’s likely that the winners of this election will decide on how to populate that school. What did you think of the school system’s redistricting process last year? Do you support using redistricting as a way to further the school system’s mission of equity?

Watts: At the outset of the redistricting process, the county was well-intentioned. However, as multiple plans emerged, there was a communication breakdown. Because of this, the community felt that there was inadequate transparency about the development of the various plans which lead to speculation and mistrust. Some community members felt as if their concerns were not addressed while others felt disenfranchised. The vitriol that emerged was the worst aspect of the process. The community may never heal from the pains inflicted during the most recent redistricting process. The board recently passed the educational equity policy which maintains that “HCPSS will strive for the establishment of a diverse, equitable and inclusive student population at all schools.” It reaffirms that “when considering the development of attendance area adjustments, Policy 6010 School Attendance Areas (redistricting), it may utilize demographic data as a factor in the consideration of boundaries” to achieve this outcome. I support using redistricting to balance capacity but also to balance opportunities and further the goals of educational equity. It is necessary to balance the socioeconomic and racial disparities throughout the county if we hope to achieve equitable outcomes for our students.

The school system is currently reexamining its school resource officer program. A vote to remove SROs from Howard County schools failed in September, and the next vote is set for January. Do you support removing SROs from Howard County schools?

Watts: Yes, I support the removal of SROs from our schools. The decision to place them among our children was done without data or community input. As an educator and as a mother of two Black sons, I have concerns about the way in which SROs are utilized in schools. I believe that the mental and emotional needs of our students are better served by highly trained school counselors, school psychologists and pupil personnel workers who already have established relationships in place. Any additional security measures should be proactive, protective and should not interfere with the learning environment. This includes increasing access to mental health professionals, creating a positive school climate and using restorative practices to foster positive relationships. A balance between physical safety and psychological health is important.

What is one issue/topic you are passionate about that you will try to bring to light as a school board member?

Watts: I am very passionate and committed to closing the opportunity gap. I truly believe that student achievement is less about ability and more about access. If we were to provide each child with access to support services, rigorous curriculum and a positive school climate, they would thrive.

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